There was a moment when it all clicked for Kurt Werner Schaechter — when he found out that not only had the French national railway company requested payment for transporting Jews to Nazi death camps during World War II, but had actually received the payment after the war.That’s when Schaechter resolved to hold the company responsible for its actions.
The information came to light nearly half a century after the deportations, when the company issued a report about its wartime archives. By the time Schaechter brought the company to court, the 30-year time limit for civil actions against state enterprises had run out, a Paris court ruled this week.
Schaechter, 82, sought symbolic damages of just one euro from the French National Railways, known by the acronym SNCF. He would have dropped the case had the company simply “recognized its responsibility” for its role in the deportation of more than 75,000 Jews to death camps during World War II, he said.
“The level of responsibility of the head of the SNCF at the time is the same as that of Maurice Papon,” Schaechter’s lawyer, Joseph Roubache told the court.
Roubache made particular reference to Pierre-Eugene Fournier, the head of the SNCF during the Nazi occupation, who for a short time was also director of the Administration of Jewish Property for the collaborationist Vichy government.
Fournier and other senior SNCF officials were personally involved in the technical organization of the deportation, Roubache said. Since they had not been brought to trial, the company itself was still responsible, he argued.
His view was disputed by Serge Klarsfeld, a historian and lawyer on Holocaust issues, who said he was not surprised by the court ruling.
“The trains were requisitioned by the government. It is absurd to compare the SNCF with Papon — who arrested Jews — while Fournier was in charge of a machine,” Klarsfeld told JTA. “We are talking here of about 80 trains, which is nothing for the national railway company. Fournier couldn’t stop the trains.”
From March 27, 1942 until August 17, 1944, the French railways organized 77 convoys to transport Jews to the death camps.
Among them were Schaechter’s father, Emile, who was killed in Sobibor in March 1944, and his mother, Margarethe, who was gassed shortly after arriving in Auschwitz less than two months later.
SNCF officials said the company had little choice but to comply with orders from the German occupiers to deport French Jews.
“The SNCF need have no excuse for having submitted to an authority which forced it” to deport Jews to the extermination camps, said Louis Gallois, the railway’s chief executive. The company “worked under orders given by the French and occupying authorities, in conditions where there was no margin for maneuver.”
The SNCF’s lawyer, Yves Baudelot, told the court that the June 10, 1940 armistice agreement between the Vichy government and the Germans placed all French railway services at the disposition of the German army.
Roubache, however, insisted that SNCF had “knowingly assisted in this enterprise of death.”
By organizing the convoys, the company had “committed an act against human dignity,” one that “could also be regarded as complicity in crimes against humanity.”
Roubache challenged the SNCF’s claim that the statute of limitations had run out. Though the SNCF’s role in the deportations had long been recognized, the company’s active involvement in organizing the convoys, as well as the fact that it received payment for such activities, had come to light only in the past decade, he said — largely through Schaechter’s own research.
Yet even Roubache acknowledged that the SNCF had involved itself in numerous activities to preserve the historical records of the period. These included a 1992 report into the organization’s war-time activities conducted by a government research organization, the early opening of SNCF archives in 1995, a conference in 2000 and an exhibition earlier this year.
According to Roubache, the 30-year statute of limitations should have started from the time the information became available.
“This is a crime against humanity and there are no time limits for those,” Jeanette Moraud, president of the Auschwitz Memorial Foundation, told JTA.
But the court ruled that the time limit had run out in 1973, 30 years after Schaechter’s parents were killed by the Nazis.
Schaechter said he had realized the SNCF’s role in the deportation of his parents only in 1991, when he saw an SNCF invoice from 1942 requesting payment for the convoys.
The company sent the invoice to the Interior Ministry on August 12, 1944, just days before Allied troops liberated Paris. The invoice was paid after the war.
“By asking for payment, the SNCF is morally still more guilty,” Roubache told the court.
Roubache told JTA he would appeal.
Moreover, he said, he would write to Justice Minister Dominique Perben, asking for a new law specifically dealing with crimes against humanity.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.